The view of Whitby from the West Cliff, looking east across the harbour towards the Abbey, must be one of the most well-known and iconic images of the town. One that is reproduced on countless postcards and tea towels. Erosion has been relentlessly nibbling away at the Yorkshire coastline ever since the ice retreated from our shores after the last glacial period.
The image, below, is an impression of how I imagine Whitby might have appeared in the 1070s, just after William the Conqueror's devastating "Harrying of the North" in the winter of 1069-70, but before the restoration of the Abbey by the repentant Norman soldier-turned-monk, Reinfrid.
The Domesday survey was undertaken by the Norman Conquerors to provide proof of rights to land and obligations to tax and military service. It would establish who held what. Whitby's estimated taxable value at the time of the Domesday survey of 1085-86 was 60 shillings. In the years before 1066 Whitby was a thriving town with a taxable value of £112.
The Harrying was an attempt to subdue the rebellious Anglo-Scandinavian population once and for all, essentially an early application of "scorched earth" that King William was said to have regretted on his deathbed. Their intent was to leave the Anglo-Danish insurgents with no means of support, shelter, tools, crops or livestock, thus preparing the way for complete Norman control of the whole of England.
The Domesday entries, describing post-Conquest Yorkshire, make grim reading and are evidence of the effectiveness of the Norman tactics. Nearly all the familiar old villages in the Whitby area are described as "waste", a term meaning no one was productively working the land. Fields lay fallow and churches fell into disrepair. Whitby had a small surviving population and held on to existence but was still described as "almost all waste" in the Domesday Book.
The 11th and 12th century chronicler, Oderic Vitalis, wrote:
"The King stopped at nothing to hunt his enemies. He cut down many people and destroyed homes and land. Nowhere else had he shown such cruelty.
To his shame, William made no effort to control his fury, punishing the innocent with the guilty. He ordered that crops and herds, tools and food be burned to ashes. More than 100,000 people perished of hunger. I have often praised William in this book, but I can say nothing good about this brutal slaughter. God will punish him."
The amount of coastal erosion that has occurred since the building of the East Pier in the 18th century was used as a guide to roughly estimate how much land has been lost in 940 years. When the East Pier was built there was no gap between the Haggerlythe and the pier.
Recent archaeological work on the Abbey Headland has shown that Anglian Whitby was a much larger settlement than previously thought, with houses and workshops covering the entire headland at various times. It is believed the settlement extended far beyond the present cliff edge. Whitby might once have had a Roman signal station like the ones at Filey, Scarborough, Ravenscar, Goldsborough and Huntcliffe. The site of the signal station at Whitby has never been found and has probably fallen into the sea many centuries ago.
Whitby, July 2010
Whitby in the 1070s?